An Appreciation – Pinocchio
Essentially, what happens at Pleasure Island operates almost like an animated version of Scared Straight. The message is given loud and clear: children who do bad things will be punished. It’s admirable for the production not to tip toe around the theme. The boys openly smoke cigars, drink beer and destroy everything around them. They openly use swear words – when was the last time we heard the word “jackass” used in a family film? But it’s all done for a purpose, to encourage dialogue between parents and their kids, to discuss why these events happen and the real life lessons being taught.
If the dangers of mischievous actions are one major theme, the idea of forgiveness and redemption is the other. All throughout the narrative Pinocchio is learning what it means to make the right choices. He trips over himself again and again, but through each experience he learns and develops. The Blue Fairy could be considered a “deus ex machina” as she routinely appears to get Pinocchio out of a jam. She releases him from Stromboli’s cage, despite Pinocchio lying to her (in the famous nose-growing scene). When Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket return home to find Geppetto missing, she tells them that he was swallowed by Monstro. Some may claim this as narrative cheating, which does have some validity. But it can also be argued that The Blue Fairy represents a means for redemption. Everyone deserves a second chance, especially when their heart is in the right place. Although Pinocchio gets into a lot of trouble, he is constantly working at being better. That is what the entire rescue scene in the belly of the whale stands for. It’s the first time Pinocchio took matters into his own hands for unselfish reasons.
A story can be won or lost by the strength of its supporting characters. Here is where Disney laid the foundation for colorful secondary characters, one that is still being used today. Each role has a unique charm. Geppetto is the kind old woodcarver. He is filled with joy and optimism. His home is crammed with toys and cuckoo clocks and other knickknacks, but all he wants is to share it with a child of his own. There is no cynicism in that desire, which is why the moment of Geppetto wishing for Pinocchio to be a real boy doesn’t come off cheesy or exaggerated. When Pinocchio is given life, the love Geppetto exudes is palpable, and when Pinocchio disappears the sadness on his face and in his voice is heartbreaking.
To a larger extent, the importance of strong supporting characters is displayed through the animals. Here is the first instance in an animated film where supporting characters are depicted through creatures. They have distinctive personalities, and react to the world like humans do. Cleo the goldfish and Figaro the cat are fully realized characters. If we study the way the animators articulated their movements, we can tell what they are thinking at any given time. Figaro is obviously given the personality of a spoiled child. When Geppetto gives more of his attention to Pinocchio, Figaro expresses jealousy. This the starting point in a long line of comedic animal characters, we can trace the legacy of Figaro and Cleo in Thumper from Bambi (1942) through Flounder in The Little Mermaid (1989) or Abu in Aladdin (1992).
We can’t acknowledge the animal characters without discussing Jiminy Cricket. He is arguably the greatest Disney sidekick next to Tinkerbell. He represents the point of view that we follow throughout the narrative; he is the first and last character we see. Part of the reason Jiminy works is because he looks nothing like a cricket. In terms of design, Jiminy is just a tiny little man with a jellybean for a head, equipped with a top hat, tuxedo, and umbrella. But he is the emotional center, assigned by The Blue Fairy to be Pinocchio’s conscience. He sings the pivotal song “When You Wish Upon A Star,” which has been adopted as the main theme for the Disney Company. Like Pinocchio, Jiminy goes through his own emotional arc. He doesn’t start out as a great conscience, there are even moments where Jiminy gives up, letting Pinocchio wander off on his own. But by the time we get to the whale scene, Jiminy has grown up as well, sticking with Pinocchio through any obstacle thrown their way.
Pinocchio was not a box office hit when first released, partly due to distribution issues related to World War II. But through the decades since, it has been seen and embraced by audiences of every age. It exists in that strange nostalgic place, where the sights and sounds burrow into our minds and remain there throughout our lives. The messages are simple but important – relatable to every family member. While it may be difficult to imagine now, Disney really took a gamble with the art form and in the long run it paid off in the biggest way possible. He had a vision not many of us have: the vision of a dreamer.